Long Way From The Top: a Cairns to Airlie Beach road trip

Aerial view of Airlie Beach, North Queensland, showing the marina, town and surrounding islands

Want to see the best North Queensland has to offer? Then come along with Sarah and Chris as they take a driving holiday from Queensland’s northern capital to the Whitsundays central.

You know the tingly feeling you get all over when you don’t know what to expect? That’s exactly how I felt arriving into Cairns for the start of our road trip to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. Chris was as calm and laidback as always, but I wondered about all the unknowns: had we given ourselves enough days (eight in all), left enough time for detours, overlooked a stop we’d later regret? Thankfully, the first part was easy enough. We’d booked a rental car to pick up at the Apex desk at Cairns Airport. And we’re off!

Going Troppo: Cairns to Lucinda

A single palm tree on a deserted beach in North Queensland, Hideaway Bay, near Bowen

This really is Tropical North Queensland. The kind you see in all the brochures. We gave ourselves four days for this leg, but you could easily add a couple more if you decided to tour the Atherton Tablelands or spend time camping on one of the islands. There are lots of highlights along the way, but you have to be sure to give Mission Beach the time it deserves – we day tripped to Dunk Island, met cassowaries and simply took a few deep breaths in this beautiful beach town – and took a dip at Babinda Boulders. There’s more about this part of our road trip here.

Water Everywhere: Lucinda to Townsville

Aerial view of swimmers in a natural rock pool overlooking lush forest and ocean, Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland

Most people would travel on to Townsville to stay the night, but Chris is determined to do Hinchinbrook Island. There’s no resort there, but there is the challenging, 32-kilometre Thorsborne Trail trek. It takes four days, which is just a touch too much for my liking, so we take a day charter to Zoe Bay. It really is beautiful and if I ever had to be shipwrecked this is where I’d choose. But the beach is not the main reason for coming here. There’s an easy walk to the natural pool at the base of Zoe Falls, but the only way is up. It’s pretty much a vertical climb at some points, but the pay-off is worth it. At the top of the falls are these incredible natural infinity pools with views of the ocean and the surrounding islands. Most of the Thorsborne hikers head up for sunrise, so we’ve got this magical spot to ourselves.

We head to Townsville at the end of the day because the next morning we’re on a 7am boat to the new Museum of Underwater Art. This living gallery was launched in 2020, with sculptor Jason DeCaires Taylor creating a piece called Coral Greenhouse that weighs more than 158 tonnes. Most of the people on the trip are divers, but we’re going the snorkel option.

The water is gin clear and the piece sits at 16 metres deep. We duck and dive and explore it from above, but I’m slightly envious of the divers. We can see them swimming in the structure and up close to the human figures. It’s easy to see how, in years to come, the sculptures will become their own living reef.

Life’s A Beach: Townsville to Airlie Beach

Looking down onto a bay with a sandy beach and rocky headland near Bowen in North Queensland

After yesterday’s long boat ride, it’s time for an easy day of driving. We’ve brought some breakfast before leaving and stop at Alligator Creek in Bowling Green Bay National Park to enjoy our meal with a side of nature. There are a few walks from here, including an easy one that takes you above the forest canopy for views of the creek.

Around here is sugarcane country, so a lot of the time it’s as though you’re driving between two green walls. To alleviate any boredom, we stop at Alva Beach near Ayr to go for a splash.

There are lots of boats around here, and Chris is itching to go fishing. Instead, we’re heading towards two neighbouring stretches of sand north of Bowen: Hydeaway Bay and Dingo Beach. Hydeaway Bay is completely deserted when we arrive, save for the turtle poking its head above the water as it swims along the fringing reef. Dingo Beach does have one advantage though: a pub that backs onto the beach where you can get a great meal and a cold beer (or soft drink for the designated driver) after you’ve been for a swim. Not that this part of the world is short of a dream beach. At Bowen we stop at popular Horseshoe Bay then follow the Cape Edgecumbe walking trail to Rose Bay.

Then it’s on to Airlie Beach. It’s a town popular with young travellers, so there are plenty of restaurants and bars if you’re keen for a night out. Try Boatys, with its big deck and striped umbrellas, as the sun goes down. Of course, tomorrow we’re jumping on an actual boat because this is the best spot to explore some of the Whitsundays most beautiful islands. Bon voyage!